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Proposed budget cuts to Office of Juvenile Justice blasted

5th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

Louisiana State Senator J.P. Morrell published a blistering op-ed on February 1 criticizing proposed budget cuts to the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ).

“We can’t afford to give up on our kids,” Morrell wrote. “They depend on us, and we can’t let them down.”

In a budget proposal outlined by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards on January 22, there were $994 million of state cuts. These include what Morrell called “significant” cuts to the OJJ.

If these cuts occur, an already taxed system of juvenile justice will offer fewer options to juvenile offenders.

“Youth who are included in the juvenile system are less likely to re-offend because the system is better suited to meet the unique needs of adolescents,” Morrell wrote. “OJJ provides rigorous programming and rehabilitative services that are simply not available in the adult system. If OJJ and its partner agencies like the Department of Health are slashed, they will no longer be able to provide the essential services that at-risk children need to get back on track.”

Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said this will eliminate probation programs for juveniles entirely in some parts of the state. Judges dealing with juvenile offenders will be left with the choice of issuing a verbal warning in court or incarcerating the child.

Gassert said the money the state will save from the proposed cuts is a mirage because it costs more money to imprison these children.

“It may seem like a cut now, but it’s actually an increase in expenditures in reality,” Gassert said.

Morrell warned that the cuts to probation programs might require already overworked probation officers to do even more. 2012 statistics by the Louisiana Probation and Parole Office in New Orleans said the average caseload in the city (149 cases per officer) was more than twice the national average (70), with the state’s average caseload (134) being just under twice the national average.

“We have a tremendous problem hiring probation officers,” Morrell said. “They already have a tremendous amount of turnover from burnout.”

This would be a serious loss to the city and state because, as Morrell put it, “A good probation officer helps people stay out of jail.”

Children who avoid the adult system are also able to avoid the physical and sexual abuse endemic in adult prisons. In January, a 17-year-old prisoner in East Baton Rouge Parish filed a federal lawsuit claiming sheriff’s staff left him vulnerable to rape by an inmate with HIV.

Morrell’s editorial also discussed the “Raise the Age Act,” which was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives and changed the minimum age to charge someone as an adult from 17 to 18. Louisiana had been one of only a few states that required all 17-year-olds to be tried as adults.

Morrell also echoed Gassert’s sentiments that investing in juvenile programs and the Raise the Age Act will ultimately save the state money. But if the juvenile programs are gutted by budget cuts, they won’t be able to properly serve the influx of young offenders being tried as juveniles.

“LSU projects that raising the age will save us $20 million annually in reduced recidivism costs,” Morrell wrote. “At that rate, the $11 million proposed cut to OJJ now would cost us $100 million in savings in just five years.”

Speaking to The Louisiana Weekly, Morrell detailed some of the basic components of juvenile justice that could be affected by the budget cuts. Teenagers in jail are supposed to have a status hearing with a judge every six to nine months to make sure they aren’t being abused. But the OJJ has to transport these prisoners from the facility to the courthouse. This costs money. Programs educating police officers and D.A.s about the state’s focus on charging juveniles as juveniles could also be cut.

“We cannot cut vital services for kids to save money now because we will pay tenfold for it in decades to come,” Morrell wrote. “Unemployment, incarceration, and a woefully unskilled workforce are what we will reap through the seeds of our inaction.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office did not return The Louisiana Weekly’s request for comment as of press time.

This article originally published in the February 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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